The World Is Desperate for COVID Vaccines, and Israel Wants to Sell Them to a Luxury Cruise Line

As millions around the globe desperately seek coronavirus vaccines, Israel's transportation and tourism ministries are hoping to find ways to open the economy and the tourism industry

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Guests sailing onboard Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas in the pre-coronavirus era.
Guests sailing onboard Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas in the pre-coronavirus era.Credit: Charles Sykes,AP

While people all over the world are still desperately seeking vaccinations to protect themselves from the coronavirus, Israel is considering selling vaccines that it purchased for its own citizens, but doesn’t need at the moment, to a global commercial concern.

In June the Odyssey of the Seas, which belongs to the fleet of the Royal Caribbean International cruise line, is due to embark on its maiden voyage from Haifa – with only people who are vaccinated and children who present a negative COVID-19 test permitted to board. These regulations also apply to the more than 1,000 crew members on the luxury cruise ship. The objective is to offer vacationers an optimal sense of security in terms of their health, so that they can reserve their trip without fear.

Because there are still restrictions on various population groups around the world in terms of eligibility for a vaccination, based mainly on age – not all of the Odyssey's staff were able to be vaccinated in the countries where they live. As a result, in recent weeks Royal Caribbean has been negotiating with the Israeli Health Ministry to purchase vaccines from Israel's inventory for employees for whom no solution has been found.

Royal Caribbean seeks a kind of "bridging" deal with Israel: The company conducted negotiations with manufacturers of vaccines and was able to purchase some, but it will take almost a year until the vials arrive. Meanwhile, the cruise line is asking Israel to sell it vaccines for the interim period until the ones it orders arrive; the company will then repay Israel in vaccines for those it purchased.

Israel as a cruise destination

A few days ago, two weeks after first visiting there, Odyssey of the Seas returned to the Haifa Port, among other reasons to try to get the vaccines it needs for its crew. According to Health Ministry sources, the last time the ship docked in Haifa, none of those aboard were vaccinated, because no approval had yet been given for that. But it turns out that the determination to fight the ban against selling the vaccines to a commercial entity has dissipated, and such a possibility is now being examined favorably, accompanied by an attempt to find a legal solution for such a process. Last Friday there was even a meeting of representatives from several government ministries on the subject.

Odyssey of the Seas, which belongs to the fleet of the Royal Caribbean International cruise line, enters Haifa's port, last month.Credit: Omer Carmon

For Royal Caribbean the clock is ticking. The international cruise-line giant must find a solution soon, since the first sailing is scheduled for June 2, and the staff would need two doses of vaccine, a certain amount of time between the shots, and a period of about a week after the second one before people are properly vaccinated.

The cruises are supposed to take place throughout the summer and the Jewish holidays in the fall, for periods of between two to seven nights – departing the Haifa Port for the cities and islands of Greece and Cyprus, among them Rhodes, Santorini, Mikonos, Chania, Athens and Limassol.

Why is Israel's Tourism Ministry encouraging the deal? Royal Caribbean is one of the world’s largest cruise lines. Moreover, although in the past five years the company has brought only about 15,000 tourists to Israel, its management hopes to turn it into a regular destination.

“The company has already ordered a series of cruises for 2022-2023, that will leave from Haifa and end up in Haifa, for tourists who will arrive in Israel or leave by plane, and spend about five touring days in Israel before or after the sailings,” according to sources in the ministry.

“This is a company that is an important strategic partner for tourism to Israel and for the Israeli economy, which is why the Tourism Ministry has joined the Transportation Ministry in its request to start cruise tourism from Israel and to help vaccinate the crews. The eyes of the entire tourism industry are on Israel and the way it is behaving and opening up tourism. This is a one-time opportunity to make Israel the world leader in this industry too.”

For its part, the Health Ministry said that “the subject is being examined here, after a request by the directors general of the transportation and tourism ministries. The Health Ministry is examining with the vaccine manufacturers the possibility of arranging a contract that will enable the cruise lines to purchase vaccines and thereby to open the tourism industry safely for the Israeli public. The Health Ministry has informed the cruise lines about considering the contractual option. Of course if it happens, it would be with payment in full.”

A woman receives a coronavirus vaccine jab in Tel Aviv, last month.Credit: Hadas Parush

The Transportation Ministry's response: “This is a joint request by the director general of the Transportation Ministry and the director general of the Tourism Ministry, which is designed to help the transportation and tourism industries recover from the COVID-19 crisis and to accelerate their return to activity.”

'A vaccine go-between'

Although what's at issue here is a very small quantity of dosages, fewer than 2,000, the decision as to whether to approve the sale of vaccines from Israel's inventory to a commercial firm is of great importance and has many implications. Indeed, there is a reason why it has led to legal consultations among the ministries, which have yet to reach a final decision on the subject.

First of all, the significance of the transaction is that Israel turns into a kind of “vaccine go-between” that sells the vaccines in its possession to a third party that is in this instance a commercial enterprise. Existing agreements with vaccine manufacturers do not allow for selling vaccines to third parties. But in this case, if the deal is struck, the vaccinations will be done within Israel’s borders and we can assume that the manufacturers won’t intervene.

TheMarker has learned that the message being conveyed to Israel by the manufacturers is that if the Israelis decide to vaccinate Palestinians, migrant workers without legal status or any other group within the State of Israel, including the ships' crews – it’s their business, and the companies will neither oppose or support the step openly and actively.

Beyond the legal dimension, the subject of vaccinating cruise-line workers arouses additional dilemmas and issues of principle. Until now Israel has vaccinated people with citizenship from other countries who live here – among them foreign nationals without legal status or Palestinian workers who come into Israel – for reasons of public health. But the main motivation for vaccinating Royal Caribbean employees is economic: to set the wheels of tourism and the economy in motion. Such a step is likely to create a precedent that Israel will have to deal with, when other commercial concerns ask it to sell them vaccines, basing their request on the cruise-line case.

In addition, such a transaction begs diplomatic and other questions. “To start distributing vaccines for commercial reasons is like conveying to the vaccine manufacturers [the message that] we have such a surplus of vaccines that we’re selling them to a commercial firm, so maybe the next time Israel tries to convince them how urgent it is to receive shipments of vaccines, they’ll remember that and won’t sell it 10 million doses, but only 2 million,” says someone involved in the issue.

The source adds: “All eyes are now on Israel, and there are countries that are still far from reasonable in terms of their vaccination rates and are suffering from a shortage of vaccines. In some countries even many older people haven’t managed to get inoculated. At such a time, to see Israel vaccinating employees of a tourist ship – that’s not the right way to deal with this national resource.”

News of the intention to vaccinate the Odyssey's crew has, for example, angered the families of Israeli medical students abroad, who have yet to find a solution for getting vaccinated. While hundreds of Israeli students have already arrived in Israel, been vaccinated and returned to their studies abroad – there are still hundreds who are unable to pay for the round-trip flights and remain unvaccinated in Eastern European countries, where the pandemic is still very active.

At the Medical Doctor International Academy, a company that works with Israelis studying medicine in Europe, staff have been trying for weeks to arrange for a vaccinating team to be sent abroad, but have so far been rebuffed by the Health Ministry. Now the company is asking to allow some 65 medical students to come to Israel to be vaccinated and be allowed to return – but on this issue too they are encountering difficulties, since the Health Ministry is demanding a minimum of 90 students for opening a local vaccination center.

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